Literary Prizes and Nationalist Politicians: The case of Olga Tokarczuk

In the wake of Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize for Literature, Ben Dew reflects on the relationship between government, national culture and international literary prizes.

Olga TokarczukOver the course of its hundred- and eighteen-year history, the Nobel Prize for Literature has frequently created problems for national governments. Perhaps the most famous incident occurred in 1970 when Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a well-known critic of the Soviet regime, was awarded the prize. Fearing that he would not be readmitted to the USSR, Solzhenitsyn refused to travel to Stockholm to receive his laureateship, thereby creating embarrassment for a Soviet government that was were already deeply unenthusiastic about the original commendation.[1] Poland’s rulers have also been placed in difficult positions by Nobel laureates. The first Polish winner of the prize was the novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz. His 1905 acceptance speech contained a forceful defence of Polish nationhood and, by implication, an attack on the Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian authorities which governed Poland at the time. ‘The award of the Prize’, he observed, ‘glorifies not only the author but the people whose son he is, and it bears witness that that nation has a share in the universal achievement, that its efforts are fruitful, and that it has the right to live for the profit of mankind. […] It has been said that Poland is dead, exhausted, enslaved, but here is the proof of her life and triumph.’[2] The presentation of the 1980 prize to the poet Czesław Miłosz, an émigré and a trenchant critic of Soviet-style socialism, created similar challenges for another Russian-backed Polish government. Indeed, it was the international attention that Miłosz received from the Nobel Prize which pressurised the Polish authorities to overturn a longstanding publication ban on his works.[3]

Controversy, albeit of a rather different nature, has also resulted from the recent decision to present the Nobel Prize for 2018 to Olga Tokarczuk. In Poland, where Tokarczuk has long been a best-selling writer, news of the award was met with a good deal of enthusiasm. The ten hours following the announcement saw Poland’s largest book-retailer, Empik, sell nearly twelve-thousand copies of her books; in the same period more than 55,000 people searched for Tokarczuk on the company’s website.[4] A range of events was quickly organised. Wrocław, Tokarczuk’s home city, granted a day of free travel on public transport to anyone carrying one of the author’s books.[5] A few days later, in a moving ceremony, the former secretary of Poland’s last Nobel Literature Laureate, the late poet Wisława Szymborska, presented Tokarczuk with an ornament (a small figurine of cat) from Szymborska’s flat.[6] A mass public reading of Tokarczuk’s works is planned in Poznań for the 10 December, the day on which she will be presented with the prize in Stockholm.[7]

Perhaps the most intriguing reaction to the award, however, came from Poland’s ruling PiS (Law and Justice) party. PiS is a populist, nationalist and socially conservative group, which has sought to restrict immigration, tighten abortion laws, and curtail LGBT rights. At one level, the party has little in common with a left-leaning, environmentalist, feminist and vegan like Tokarczuk. PiS representatives, however, responded to the Nobel news with enthusiasm. The President, Andrzej Duda, writing on Twitter, proclaimed it ‘a great day for Polish literature.’[8] On the same platform Mateusz Morawiecki, the Prime Minister, noted: ‘I sincerely congratulate Olga on her great success, and I am glad that Polish Literature is so valued across the whole world. It’s wonderful news.’[9] Piotr Gliński, the minister of culture tweeted in near identical terms: ‘The success of a Polish author is very pleasing. The Nobel prize is emphatic evidence that Polish culture is valued throughout the world.’[10] The government followed up these statements with an announcement, seemingly hastily put together, declaring that future Nobel Prize winners would not be required to pay tax on their substantial prize money (9 million Swedish Krona, or c. £725,000).

At one level such statements are typical of the glib pronouncements on cultural affairs which political leaders feel obliged to utter on such occasions. They were, however, quickly seized on by PiS’s opponents. A few months earlier, it transpired, when Tokarczuk had been awarded the International Booker Prize, Gliński had spoken in rather different terms about her success observing: ‘It is good that a Pole has received a prestigious prize, but it would have been better, if it had been a Polish writer who understands Polish society and the Polish community.’[11] Gliński’s own knowledge of Tokarczuk’s work, meanwhile, was shown to be distinctly limited. In an interview conducted a few days before the Nobel award, he confessed to never having finished one of her novels.[12] At the same time, the populist press quickly turned against Tokarczuk. W.polityce.pl, a pro-government online news platform, acknowledged her talent as a writer, but added that ‘a left-wing world view opens a lot of doors these days.’[13] The website also published a list of Tokarczuk’s more controversial statements, drawing particular attention to her remarks about Poles as ‘owners of slaves’ and ‘murderers of Jews.’ In a similar vein, the author’s Polish-language Wikipedia page was edited by an anonymous contributor so that it read, albeit briefly, ‘Olga Tokarczuk, anti-Polish writer.’[14]

Tokarczuk’s own public response to the prize was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very different to that of PiS. In an interview given shortly after the announcement, she avoided the kind of cultural nationalism that underpinned the ministerial tweets, observing instead that: ‘It is wonderful that the Swedish academy valued literature from the central part of Europe. I’m glad that we are still holding on.’[15] In part, of course, Tokarczuk’s self-conception as a central European writer was a response to the specific conditions in which the award had been made; her own prize (for 2018) was awarded at the same time as the 2019 winner, the Austrian writer, Peter Handke.[16] Nevertheless, such ideas are in line with the views expressed elsewhere in her writing. Flights, to date her most celebrated work in the anglophone world, is a novel explicitly concerned with transnational and extranational identity.[17] Its primary focus is not on individuals who remain in one particular locale, but those who are on the move – often fleeing their everyday lives – and exist outside the direct control of national, political regulations. For Tokarczuk, the archetypal modern space is the airport, a location which both resembles a polity, it has its own citizens, its own laws and its own constitutions, but resists internal national politics. The world’s airports, as she conceives of them, constitute an independent system of mini-city states, which the novel (part jokingly?) suggests will one day receive their own representation at the United Nations.

While such comments and the whimsical manner in which they are expressed might be seen to resist the sort of cultural logic which underpins modern forms of nationalism, Tokarczuk has also been a good deal more explicit with regard to PiS. The Nobel announcement occurred in the days leading up to a Polish General Election. And Tokarczuk used one of her first interviews as a Nobel Prize winner to launch a direct attack on the ruling party: ‘For me these elections are the most important since 1989. We are in a situation with a very clear choice: whether we will vote for a Poland which will divide itself from Europe and push democratic values aside. I think that it is a choice between democracy and authoritarianism.’[18] Ultimately, to use Tokarczuk’s terms, Poland chose authoritarianism, handing PiS a majority in both houses of Parliament. Her vison of Poland, therefore, remains in direct contrast to that of her government, and the divide between them is emblematic of Polish society’s deep political divisions.

What also becomes clear from the various controversies surrounding Tokarczuk’s prize are the complexities of the relationship between nationalistic governments and international acclaim. Ever anxious to find ways of demonstrating the value of their own culture, nationalist politicians and writers are particularly enthusiastic about receiving international commendation for local cultural achievements. This is a trend with a considerable history; it is noteworthy that PiS conceived of the Nobel Prize in exactly the same way that Sienkiewicz had done more than a hundred years previously. However, an award like the Nobel Prize, at least in its modern form, is explicitly preoccupied not with works which glorify a particular culture, but those which are able to transcend cultural borders. Indeed, in its statement announcing Tokarczuk’s award the Swedish Academy noted her concern with ‘migration and cultural transitions’ and praised her ‘narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.’[19] As a consequence, the approach which has brought Tokarczuk success, and made her (even if only briefly) appealing to nationalist politicians is one that is fundamentally at odds with nationalist politics.


[1] See for example: Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001).  

[2] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1905/sienkiewicz/speech/

[3] See: Czesław Miłosz, Czesław Miłosz: Conversations, ed. by Cynthia L. Haven (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2006).

[4] https://noizz.pl/kultura/w-10-godzin-sprzedano-ponad-11-tys-ksiazek-olgi-tokarczuk/9tly71v  Translations from Polish sources are by the author.

[5] https://www.transport-publiczny.pl/mobile/wroclaw-pasazerowie-z-ksiazka-olgi-tokarczuk-jezdza-za-darmo-62849.html

[6] https://wroclaw.wyborcza.pl/wroclaw/7,35771,25328337,olga-tokarczuk-dostala-prezent-od-wislawy-szymborskiej-poetka.html

[7] https://poznan.wyborcza.pl/poznan/7,36001,25445852,nobel-dla-olgi-tokarczuk-w-poznaniu-wielkie-czytanie-noblistki.html

[8] @AndrzejDuda

[9] @MorawieckiM

[10] @PiotrGlinski

[11] https://www.newsweek.pl/opinie/premier-glinski-ubolewa-a-ja-razem-z-nim/zm6wx8t

[12] https://oko.press/glinski-nie-czytal-ale-gratuluje/

[13] https://wpolityce.pl/spoleczenstwo/467710-talent-talentemale-lewicowy-swiatopoglad-otwiera-dzis-drzwi

[14] https://wroclaw.wyborcza.pl/wroclaw/7,35771,25296258,olga-tokarczuk-antypolska-pisarka-w-wynikach-wyszukiwania.html

[15] https://wroclaw.wyborcza.pl/wroclaw/7,35771,25293184,literacki-nobel-2019-dla-olgi-tokarczuk.html

[16] Following a series of scandals in the Swedish Academy, no prize was awarded in 2018.

[17] Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, tr. by Jennifer Croft (London: Fitzcarraldo, 2017), first published as Bieguni, 2007.

[18] http://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/7,143907,25298164,olga-tokarczuk-o-wyborach-to-bedzie-wybor-pomiedzy-demokracja.html

[19] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/10/nobel-prizes-in-literature-olga-tokarczuk-peter-handke-2019-2018

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